Sometimes the Christian life feels incredibly difficult. We wonder, perhaps, what the point of it all is. We wonder whether our attempts, faltering through they may be, at day-by-day faithfulness will every bear any fruit. We wonder whether our wanderings are leading us up the mountain of God or if we’re meandering around the foothills, perfectly lost.
We’re supposed to be becoming more like Jesus. Are we? Can we see that in our lives? I think for many of us it can be remarkably difficult to do so. But that may be a trick of the light—a problem of perspective—rather than a problem with us.
I’ve experienced moments in my life where God has opened my heart and changed me right then and there. Where a particular area of my life, a lie I’ve been believing or sin I’ve been indulging in is dramatically gone as though it had never existed. The Spirit has rewritten me like I rewrote that last sentence, grammar corrected (or better, anyway).
Most of our sanctification—that’s the term for becoming more like Jesus—isn’t like that. It’s not huge jumps up the mountain of Christlikeness, though those are real, desirable, and to be treasured. Instead, it’s steady steps one at a time. It’s a plod up a hillside on a hot day. It’s wearisome, and somehow the horizon doesn’t seem to move very much with each step. As we get higher up the hill, we start to realise it’s a lot bigger than we thought it was, and we’re a lot less far up it than we thought we were. It’s as though I went out on my prayer walk in the Lickey Hills and suddenly realised I was scaling Everest, and feel remarkably ill-equipped with my Bible, notebook, and travel mug of coffee for company.
The thing is, when we realise the mountain is much bigger than we thought, we are right, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t climbed as far as we’ve already come, that doesn’t mean that growth towards God is of no value. The Lord of Hosts, for one, does not despise it.
We are called to live ordinary lives, to grow slowly from footstep to footstep. When we get the opportunity to take a step back and look at where you were many years ago and where you are with and in God now, we will see that we have grown more Christlike in many ways. Or we will be chastened by our lack of growth. Sanctification is glorious in hindsight.
On the other hand, right in the middle of it, sanctification is bewildering, sharp-edged, and frankly ugly. Why is that? Think of it like this: you’ve gone to the local art gallery and meet someone else there.
“I wouldn’t bother to look at the paintings,” they say to you, “I’ve had a bit of a chance to look around and everything is murky, dark, and unattractive. I don’t know why they keep them in the gallery.”
You look at them a little askance because you’ve popped in before and you’re sure you remember breath-taking paintings of astounding beauty. You know there are a couple of famous pieces that are well known in the gallery as well.
“Do you mean the pieces need a bit of cleaning?” you ask, trying to get at what they mean.
“I guess that could help, but why do they show them if you can’t see the paint for the grime!” your friend exclaims, “Come and see what I mean.”
So, they take you to view the first piece, you’re no connoisseur of art but its not murky, dark and unattractive. Your friend marches over to it gesturing at you to follow. And they keep marching. Until their nose is almost touching the paint and the tour guides in the gallery are coming over in alarm.
“See what I mean!”
Ok, I’ve never met anyone who behaves like that in an art gallery, but if you try and look at most paintings from millimetres away, they are dark and ugly. Instead, if you back away to get the long view, you can see what the painter was doing. You have to create space for light.
In much the same way you need to be able step back from the more tumultuous and difficult events of your life to get any sense of whether or not you’re growing in God. When things are tough and you’re trying to cling to God like a flotation device that seems much too small in a storm-lashed sea that seems much too big (and is probably shark-infested to boot), it’s all you can do to hang on. You don’t—and you can’t—have the perspective to take a step-back and see the bigger picture. You’re too close to the paint to see the shapes involved, you can just feel the brush hitting you on the head as the artist applies the paint.
When life is knocking you for six and you dearly want to believe that suffering is developing your character, earning you an eternal weight of glory, forming you into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3), you simply can’t see it. You’re too close to the action. These are truths to cling to, rather than truths to enjoy. It is only when we have time to breathe and look back that we may be able to see how the plod of God through the minefields of life has led us to greener pastures.
Hindsight is 20/20 they say. They, whoever they are who write these modern proverbs, perhaps in a literal proverbial thinktank, are right. One of the problems with trying to understand our lives from the viewpoint of God is that we don’t possess the viewpoint of God. We can’t.
Even with hindsight, we might be able to see some of the shapes the artist is outlining, but not the whole picture. Even with hindsight, I might be wrong. It’s only when the painting is finished, when a life is lived, that the painter’s intention is clear. His mastery will be evident, but not yet.
For now, dear friends, keep walking forwards.
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